04/01 – The Berlin Airlift

An American political cartoon depicting the Soviet Russian effort to starve the Western half of Berlin. (Tes)

On this day in 1948, Soviet officials in the German Democratic Republic (GDR, or East Germany) began aggressively holding up and searching supply trains heading to West Berlin. Soviet officials were upset about efforts amongst the Western Allies to bring a common currency to West Germany and strengthen that country’s economy. Soon, the western half of Berlin – known as the Trizone and governed by France, Britain and the US – was entirely cut off, running low on supplies and in danger of mass starvation. Fearing a Communist takeover of the “friendly” half of the city, the Western Allies under American General Lucius D. Clay began flying supplies into Tempelhof airport in West Berlin.

The partitioning of Germany. The Western “Trizone” is denoted in green, purple and red; the Soviet Russian zone is in yellow. East and West Germany had their own autonomous governments, but were influenced heavily by the occupiers. Note Berlin’s location, well within the Soviet Russian zone and only accessible to the Western zones by air and rail. (Nicolas Bouliane)

The operation, known as the Berlin Airlift, was incredibly risky; at its peak, over 12,000 tons of supplies were arriving in West Berlin every day and planes were touching down at Tempelhof every 30 seconds. Although 101 aircrew and West German civilians died in air accidents during the effort, by September of 1949 over 2,334,374 tons of food and other necessities had been shipped to Berliners. By September 30th, Soviet rail restrictions were finally lifted and the airlift was officially called off. In total, aircraft from the West – flown by Canadians, Americans, Brits, New Zealanders, South Africans, Australians, and Frenchmen – had flown a combined 150 million km (92 million miles), roughly the same distance from the Earth to the Sun. The operation still holds the record for the largest humanitarian relief mission in human history.

German children welcoming another supply plane. Interestingly, they are standing on rubble from a ruined building – a result of Allied bombing efforts only years before the airlift took place. (History.com)

Since the end of WWII, Berlin – the epicentre of the Nazi regime – had been split in half by the Soviets (USSR) and Western Allies (the Commonwealth, US, France, etc). Although administration of Berlin was shared, the city was deep inside the Soviet-controlled GDR and completely isolated from West Germany. Initially, occupied West Germany had used different forms of currency in the various occupied sectors. This resulted in an explosion of black market activity, however, and currency reform called for. In early 1948, the London Power 6 Agreement was convened and the Western Allies – alongside the West German government – decided to introduce the Deutsche Mark (DM). Frightened at the prospect of a unified, economically viable West Germany, the Soviets introduced their blockade measures in an effort to force the cancellation of the planned currency reform. The Western Allies called the Soviet bluff, however, and the aforementioned Berlin Airlift took place. Although the operation was a resounding success for the West, it succeeded in further ratcheting up Cold War tensions.

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